United States v. Cervantes

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: Constitutional Law
  • Date Filed: 05-16-2012
  • Case #: 09-50521
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Pregerson for the Court; Circuit Judge Nelson; Dissent by Circuit Judge Ikuta
  • Full Text Opinion

Under the Fourth Amendment, the automobile and the community care exceptions to the warrant requirement for a search only apply if there is: (1) probable cause not based on conclusory observations and (2) the government sustains the heavy burden of demonstrating a valid caretaking reason for a vehicle to be impounded and searched.

Jesus Antonio Ramos Cervantes (Cervantes) was arrested for unlawfully transporting narcotics after officers stopped him for a traffic violation, while he was under surveillance for visiting an alleged “stash house.” His vehicle was impounded and searched, revealing cocaine. At trial, he moved to suppress the cocaine found in his vehicle, claiming the search was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The district court denied the motion, finding the vehicle was lawfully impounded and searched according to California law and police policy, and was justified under the caretaking exception to the warrant requirement in the Fourth Amendment. The Ninth Circuit reversed, agreeing with Cervantes that the search was in violation of the Fourth Amendment. The automobile exception requires probable cause to allow a search, and the Court found the officer's conclusory belief that cocaine came from a stash house did not constitute probable cause, nor did the officer's observation of Cervantes driving an “indirect route” to his own home. The Court concluded Cervantes drove in a perfectly innocent manner, and the police conclusions to the contrary were insufficient to establish probable cause. The Court also found the government did not sustain its burden to justify impounding and searching the vehicle under the caretaking exception. The exception only applies if the vehicle would jeopardize public safety or is at risk for theft or damage. Since the vehicle was parked on a residential street, it posed no such risk. In addition, the Court found California law requires an arrest for a traffic violation before impounding the vehicle. Police impounded the vehicle, found the cocaine and then arrested Cervantes, thus not complying with the law. As such, the cocaine was seized in violation of the Fourth Amendment and could not be used to prosecute Cervantes. REVERSED and REMANDED.

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